Great-Grandma Did What? Becoming a Family-History Explorer

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith.  Our subject this week is an area of study that interests millions of people -- genealogy, researching family history.


People study their family history for different reasons.  For some, genealogy is important to their religion.  This is especially true for Mormons.

Genealogy is also important for membership in some historical or cultural organizations.  These include the General Society of Mayflower Descendents and the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Candidates for membership may be asked for evidence about when their families came to America.

Other people who get involved in genealogy may want to confirm stories they heard about a family member.  Or they may just want to learn more about the strange-looking people in old family pictures.

Some people say their interest in genealogy came from watching an eight-part series on television called "Roots."  "Roots" was first broadcast in nineteen seventy-seven.  It was extremely popular.

It was based on a book by the writer Alex Haley.  He wanted to find the history of his family.  He described how the story began long ago in Africa, as slave traders captured one of his ancestors and brought him to America.

After watching "Roots," many Americans wanted to investigate their own roots.  In some cases, what they found surprised them.

For example, one man knew that a member of his family had crossed the United States with members of the Mormon Church in the eighteen hundreds.  His ancestor was a builder and did many jobs for the group.

The early Mormon Church permitted men to marry more than one woman.  A genealogy search showed that the builder was, in fact, married to seven women and had at least thirty children.


So how exactly does someone start a genealogical investigation?  Experts say you should start with yourself.  Write down your own history, then if possible work back to your parents and grandparents.

One idea is to ask your parents what they can remember about their parents or grandparents.  Find out all you can about your ancestors.  Where did they live?  What kind of work did they do?

Many people use sound or video recorders as they talk to family members.  That way they create a permanent record of family memories.

And, like any good investigator, do the best you can to separate facts from stories that may or may not be true.

You can often find a lot of information in family pictures, letters and other documents.  Some of these things may be hidden inside old books.

Resources on local history may also provide useful information.  Large libraries may have hundreds of helpful books.

In the United States, several groups have large collections of genealogical materials.  These include the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the Family History Library of the Mormon Church.  These collections are open to the public.

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, has about two thousand visitors each day.  The library has information from almost every area of the world.  Most records are from the years fifteen fifty through nineteen twenty.

Some people travel to Utah to use the library.  But the Mormon Church has established more than four thousand Family History Centers around the world.

The church also has a Web site to help people look for information about their family history.  The address is


Records kept by religious groups are among the most dependable for family research projects.  Often the most helpful documents are records of marriages and deaths.

Death records, for example, tell where the person lived.  They also list the names of the person's parents.  And they list the cause of death.

Governments usually keep official copies of birth, marriage and death records.

You should also examine other records -- you never know what you might find.  Useful information might be found in local court and tax records.  And local governments may have copies of wills.  These statements of final wishes often contain details about a person's life and possessions.

Governments often have many helpful records for genealogists.  The United States government, for example, has done population studies every ten years since the end of the seventeen hundreds.

Early census records had few details.  They gave the name of the head of the family.  They listed the number of people in the family.  Recent census records provide more information.  They show the value of a family's property.  They also tell where a person's parents were born.

For privacy reasons, Census Bureau information on individuals is not made public until after seventy-two years.

Copies of old census records are kept on microfilm at centers around the country.  More information about Census Bureau records can be found at

One of the most important places for genealogy researchers is the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  The National Archives keeps not only census records but also records on men and women who served in the armed forces.  Military records give details of the person's position and dates of service.  These records can show if an ancestor fought in any wars.

The National Archives also has records of early settlers who received land from the government.  And it has lists of immigrants who arrived in America by ship.  More information about the National Archives can be found on the Internet at nara -- n-a-r-a -- dot g-o-v (

Passenger records for immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island in New York can be searched online at ellisisland dot o-r-g (  That site is operated by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.


Today, many people use the Internet as they research their family history.  There are thousands of Web sites related to genealogy.  These can guide people to historical records.  They can also provide information about how to write down your family's history.  Some people put all of the information and pictures they collect into nicely designed books and have copies made for family members.

Beginning genealogists often believe they can do all of their research on the Internet.  But experience has shown that people are often able to gather only a small amount of useful or correct information.  Also keep in mind that Web sites may be operated by businesses and groups that are trying to sell products and services.

Finding your family roots is not always easy.  But continuing to search can sometimes produce results.

For example, there was a man who knew that part of his family had lived in the same area of Pennsylvania for almost two centuries.  He knew the names of many of his ancestors, but nothing more.  He searched for additional information but could not find any.

Then the man bought a copy of an old map of the area.  The map had been produced more than one hundred years earlier.  Many burial grounds at that time were near churches.  During a trip to the area, the man used the map to find these old burial grounds.

The information he found on burial markers answered some of his questions about his ancestors.  Yet the answers raised several new questions.  This often happens in genealogy.

People who seek their roots through genealogy say the search is a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.  Many people say it also helps them learn more about history.  Their search not only brings history to life by making it more personal.  It also gives them a better understanding of their family's place in history.  And it gives them a better understanding of themselves.


Our program was written by George Grow and produced by Caty Weaver. You can download transcripts of our programs, and find links to the Web sites we listed, at  I'm Steve Ember.

I'm Shirley Griffith.  We hope you can listen again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.